Should You Report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

This week, The Simple Dollar attempts to address challenging questions in personal finance by looking at both sides of the story and figuring out some of the factors you need to look at to make a decision.

Sexual harassment is a serious issue and can cause some serious workplace tensions and problems. I’ve witnessed two incidents of what I would call sexual harassment in the workplace, but interestingly, neither one was the stereotypical “man harassing woman” often seen in popular culture. In one incident, a woman was harassing a man – in the other, a woman was harassing another woman.

In both cases, it created a very poisonous environment at work, where one key member of the team was obviously upset and distracted by the behavior of another. The effects of the harassment weren’t just limited to one person – it affected all of us.

The question is, if you’re harassed, should you report it to a supervisor? There are strong reasons on both sides of the fence, and it’s one worth looking at in detail.

Yes!

In a workplace environment, no one should expect or have to tolerate sexual behavior towards them. It’s completely out of bounds of appropriate behavior and can result in severe discomfort of the harassed. It should not be tolerated and needs to be directly eliminated at the source.

It’s not just the harassed individual, either: sexual harassment is a behavior which poisons the entire workplace. The tension that exists between the harasser and the harassed boils over into other relationships, the gossip mill at work starts churning, and the productivity of the entire environment can fall because of it.

Sexual harassment needs to be nipped hard in the bud, and the most effective way of doing that is to put administrative pressure on the situation. It needs to become extremely clear to the harasser that such behavior is not tolerated, and the most effective way to do that is from above.

No!

In a modern office environment, candor and openness and the willingness to express ideas are vital to creating a forward-thinking working environment. Sometimes, this openness leads individuals to feel quite comfortable and occasionally make statements or comments that are outside of the comfort zone of others.

Responding to such comments or behaviors with an immediate response from above does nothing more than damage that openness and candor. Suddenly, everyone starts being much more careful about what they say and the open exchange of ideas quickly slows down. I’ve witnessed it happen before – an open environment can become very tense very fast once administrative people start bandying about statements about harassment and placing people on probation because they chose to speak their mind or their feelings.

That’s not to say that such behavior should be accepted, but two professionals can usually discuss such incidents between themselves and defuse the situation without destroying the collaborative openness of a healthy and creative office environment. Harassment situations are generally best handled between the people directly involved and do not have to spill over into the greater environment.

My Take

If inappropriate behavior makes you feel deeply uncomfortable in the workplace, you should do something about it. Having said that, I really don’t believe that the first step should be to report sexual harassment up the food chain. Instead, the best response is to tackle it individually with the harasser – and don’t make threats about it, either. Just simply ask them to cool it because the behavior is bothering you.

In both cases I mentioned at the start of this article, I basically encouraged the harassed to not report it and instead have a serious talk with the person harassing them – in both cases, the problem was defused and in one of the cases the two later became friends once they became comfortable with each other’s style.

Obviously, if that tactic doesn’t work, you may need to escalate it, but remember that there are often social consequences to reporting someone for their behavior, particularly in an open environment where people generally feel that they can talk freely. You will lose candor if you do this unless the person’s behavior is so outrageous that it’s genuinely bothering a lot of people in the office.

Fortunately, most people are civil enough to realize that a stern “just cool it” means just that – they’re better off just backing away and letting it be. Thus, you shouldn’t have to escalate the situation most of the time.

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